Will the Holy Father tackle the tough issues when he visits the United States? . . .
by Judy Roberts
As excitement builds for Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States in September, many Catholics are hoping the Holy Father will seize the opportunity to speak out on the issues that most concern them.
During his six-day trip, Pope Francis will address Congress and the United Nations, meet with President Obama, and preside over the first World Meeting of Families to take place in North America. Each venue would seem to offer him a platform for concerns like the plight of persecuted Christians, threats to religious freedom and the family, and the dangers inherent in embracing contraception and abortion.
Meeting with Obama
What the Holy Father will say remains to be seen. According to a White House statement, the Pope’s Sept. 23 meeting with President Obama will cover such issues as “caring for the marginalized and the poor, advancing economic opportunity for all, serving as good stewards of the environment, protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world, and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”
However, parts of the Pope’s conversation with President Obama are likely to be private, giving the Holy Father an opportunity to discuss concerns that are not necessarily on the agenda.
Leonard Leo, a member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, said the Pope and the President obviously share some similar perspectives on economic and immigration issues. However, Leo said he hopes the meeting will focus on areas where there is not agreement, such as the sanctity of human life, the natural moral order in relation to marriage, and freedom of conscience.
“We’re having a crisis in our country on the issue of conscience,” Leo said. “I think that the Holy Father having a dialogue with the President on that issue would be very useful. It may or may not have an impact, but I think it’s important.”
Leo, who is executive vice president of the Federalist Society and co-founder of the Catholic Association and the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, said he also thinks the Holy Father will be in a good position to articulate the underpinnings of the Church’s teachings on life and traditional marriage, which are not widely understood.
Leo said he also hopes that Pope Francis will be able to discuss religious freedom with President Obama.
“The President’s vision is freedom of worship,” he said. “He’s perfectly happy to have us say our prayers in the pews. He’s not particularly happy with seeing religion in the public square, and America has a long history of embracing freedom of religion, which pertains to freedom of conscience.”
Religious freedom and the U.N.
Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, said he expects that the Holy Father will challenge President Obama on a broader understanding of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
“Religious freedom is certainly ripe for conversation,” he said, both in the context of Christian businesses that want the right to refuse participation in same-sex weddings and those that object to providing abortifacient contraceptives in their health plans.
Ruse, whose group monitors and seeks to affect social policy debate at the United Nations, said when Pope Francis visits the U.N. on Sept. 25, he would not anticipate him talking about abortion, population control and contraception — concerns that are known to roil the international body. At the same time, he said, he will be disappointed if the Pope doesn’t mention them.
“He already says that we shouldn’t obsess on these types of issues, so I suspect that he will follow his own advice, which will be unfortunate because the African countries in particular are most upset at the imposition of this radical sexual ideology on their countries by U.N. agencies and western non-governmental organizations.”
Ruse said Pope Francis will likely talk about the environment, poverty, global inequality, human rights, and perhaps the plight of Christians in Africa and the Middle East — issues of concern to the U.N. on which the Holy Father has spoken.
“All these are very good things,” Ruse explained. “Tucked in among them I would love to hear him talk about what he himself has referred to as the gender ideology, which is being imposed on the developing world by western elites.”
On his return flight from the Philippines earlier this year, the Pope warned wealthy western nations against forcing this ideology — which holds that gender is not biological, but cultural — on developing nations by tying it to foreign aid and education.
Leo said the most important issue the Pope can address at the U.N. concerns what the international community is going to do about the persecution of Christians around the world. Neither the U.N. Council on Human Rights nor the General Assembly is doing enough about it, he said. “That’s what the Church can bring to bear at a meeting of the U.N. because we can speak with persuasive force and expertise.”
World Meeting of Families
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia — where the Pope will take part in the World Meeting of Families from Sept. 26-27 — told Legatus magazine it’s obvious that family life is a signature concern of Francis’ pontificate.
In light of that, he said, “I think the Pope will press Catholics to take their faith more seriously and to conform their hearts and their behaviors to the truth of Catholic teaching about the family. That’s the only guarantee of a healthy family, and healthy families are the only guarantee of a healthy and humane society.”
Added Ruse: “I think it’s going to be a remarkable moment for him to speak to American Catholics about the importance of family and religious belief.” Ruse said he hopes the Pope is in a “rally-the-troops” mood because it’s a time when the American people are in need of leaders who will lead, particularly in the wake of court actions that have overturned the will of the people expressed in votes to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Archbishop Chaput said he thinks Francis’ popularity means his U.S. visit will have a positive effect on Catholics who have drifted from the faith.
“Our work will begin after the Pope returns to Rome,” he said. “We need to live the kind of Christian witness that will draw alienated people more deeply back into the Church.”
JUDY ROBERTS is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.